The Poetics of Thought

The Explicit

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on November 19, 2009

The term ‘explicit’ which Polanyi uses within his epistemological system has a range of applications outside of that usage.  In popular culture it has come to mean sexually provocative or, when applied to rap music for example, to mean containing uncensored and possibly offensive speech.  As far as the origins of the term go, whilst they may appear to lie elsewhere, they do suggest a continuity which embraces these contemporary vernacular uses and Polanyi’s application of the word to a form of knowledge.  Explicit comes from the Latin explicitus which translates as ‘to unfold’ or ‘to roll out’ (Hoad, 1986), and traces of the plicitus can be found in the modern usage plait of hair or plywood.  As noted in the same source, the words explicitus est liber could often be found at the end of medieval manuscripts where today we might find The End. The location of this sentence at the end of piece of writing makes literal and appropriate sense when that writing takes the form of a scroll, which is where one would originally find them.  In arriving at that point of the writing, the ‘explication’, one had literally unrolled the knowledge into the world and hence made it ‘explicit’.   The examples of modern usage in sexually-loaded images or potentially-offensive language can be seen to follow that tradition in metaphorical form.  The pornographic picture is explicitly provocative because it does not lie dormant on the page, but is felt to unfurl across the space between image and viewer and seems to touch his passions directly.  The obscenities and violence found in the lyrics to some music may, in this sense, be thought of as the unfolding of an arm and the throwing of a punch out at the listener.     The explicit knowledge of Polanyi shows a family resemblance to these metaphorical instantiations, and indeed to a raft of other uses, all of which link some work of the intellect to an outgoing occupation of space.

Walter Ong includes this term amongst those which he saw as relating knowing not only to the occupation of space, but also to vision, ‘when knowledge is likened to sight it becomes pretty exclusively a matter of explanation or explication, a laying out on a surface, perhaps in chart-like form, or an unfolding, to present maximum exteriority’ (Ong, 1977: 123).  There is the sense that the knowing which can be described, articulated, proposed, and declared, has extended itself outward from the person of the speaker, carving a clear path through space such that it stands as an object at the end of that path.

The close allegiance of the notion of the explicit is thoroughly exploited in Rebecca Schneider’s ‘The Explicit Body in Performance’(1997).  As part of a series of closely argued propositions about, particularly, the status and objectification of women in relation to body-based arts practice she says that:

Habits of perspectival vision have emblematically placed the female body at the vanishing point even as the primary scene or landscape of representation is feminized. … I argue that certain tenets of pespectival vision, particular the removed, invisible viewer, are still very much at play even in so-called antiocular economies of vision. (1997: 7)

I would not wish to unpack this paragraph in its entirety in terms of the various conceptual metaphors of space that it draws upon and which allow it to make a certain kind of sense; What we might note at this point is that the term explicit is clearly being adopted because of its implication of an unfolding across (possibly contested) space.  This application of the schema is used by Schneider along with a set of understandings concerning the politics of space, gaze, and objects.

We can see from these examples of other usage that Polanyi’s choice of the term ‘explicit’ to indicate a form of knowledge places it within the range of a particular set of metaphors and inferences.  In each case the explicit is that which is out there in the open, in plain sight and the light that sight requires.  It is laid out before us and stands apart from us.

HOAD, T. F. (1986) The Concise Oxford dictionary of English etymology, Oxford, Clarendon.


ONG, W. J. (1977) “I See What You Say”: Sense Analogues for Intellect. IN ONG, W. J. (Ed.) Interfaces of the word:Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press.

SCHNEIDER, R. (1997) The explicit body in performance, London; New York, Routledge.


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